When Haven Greyson Smith was born at 25 weeks on New Year’s Day in 2019, he weighed 410 grams. At less than a pound, he was the size of a soda can.
Life was already complicated for the micro-preemie before the COVID-19 pandemic. Haven has pulmonary hypertension and one working kidney and will need a kidney transplant.
His mom, Amanda Smith, a military veteran who served in Afghanistan, has to scramble to stock up on critical supplies for her 18-pound, Elmo-obsessed toddler, who’s on oxygen and a feeding tube, without leaving the home where they are sheltering in place with her mom.
Nearly impossible to find until recently were size 3 Pampers, the only diapers that don’t chafe and inflame Haven’s sensitive skin.
“It seems hit and miss still, but we got at least a month’s supply,” said Smith, 42. “I think it’s kind of insane that we live in the 21st century and that we are having to go to these lengths to get the necessities for our children.”
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The diaper shortage, brought on by frantic stockpiling, shows signs of easing, much to the relief of stressed-out parents and caregivers who combed stores online and off for baby essentials during shelter-in-place orders.
Shelves were empty and delivery slots from grocery stores and services such as Instacart were hard to come by, so some people turned to cloth diapers as a backup, an alternative that doesn’t work for everyone, especially without easy access to a washing machine or a laundromat.
Diapers, wipes could be in short supply for six weeks or more
A full-throttle production effort is helping diaper manufacturers catch up with demand, though it could be months before parents and caregivers can count on finding the usual range of sizes and brands, supply chain experts said.
“I suspect that it will take about six weeks to two months for the supply chain processes to stabilize, and the shelves may look quite different in terms of the displays of product variety,” said Anna Nagurney, the John F. Smith Memorial professor of operations management at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Sales of disposable baby products had been stagnant because of declining birthrates and growing competition from private label manufacturers, online retailers and subscription services, according to Mintel analyst Olivia Guinaugh. Now companies are pushing more diapers out of their warehouses than ever before.
“No one expected this to happen, at least not to this degree,” Guinaugh said. “They are just trying to meet demand for everyone.”
Kimberly-Clark, one of the largest disposable diaper manufacturers, makes millions of Huggies every year in the USA, as well as wipes, Pull-Ups and Goodnights. Officials told USA TODAY the company sped up production by running its facilities around the clock and narrowing the number of products it makes.
“We are starting to see a lot more supply coming through for consumers already,” Rebecca Dunphey, president of baby and child care for Kimberly-Clark North America, said in an interview. “This is a very stressful time for parents. We don’t want them worrying about how they are going to be able to diaper their children.”
Procter & Gamble, which makes Pampers, said in an emailed statement that it’s committed to getting diapers to families in “a highly dynamic situation.”
Baby wipes may return to store shelves far more slowly. Americans, looking to scour and disinfect their homes and belongings during the pandemic, snapped up every kind of wipe, including ones intended for babies, in a wave of panic buying after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. “The recovery on wipes is going to be longer than what we are seeing on diapers,” Dunphey said.
More families struggle to afford baby diapers
Another kind of diaper crisis is beginning for a growing number of families. Walloped by record job losses sweeping the country, some parents and caregivers can no longer afford diapers even when they’re in stock.
Diaper banks, community organizations that distribute free diapers to struggling families, said they are experiencing record demand, up 50% to 300% compared with the number of families they served each month.
In response, they provide families with a two-month supply of diapers, increase the frequency of diaper distribution and empty warehouses to give out diapers to more families. In communities where conditions are especially grave, they coordinate diaper distribution at COVID-19 testing sites, giving out diapers to families at school lunch pickups and creating drive-thrus where families can pick up donated diapers.
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Even before COVID-19, 1 in 3 U.S. families struggled to provide enough diapers to keep their children clean, dry and healthy, says Joanne Goldblum, CEO of the nonprofit National Diaper Bank Network. The average baby goes through six to 10 diapers a day, which can cost parents and caregivers as much as $80 a month or more per child.
Tonia Harris, a mother of two and a client services manager for a home health care agency in Philadelphia, gave birth to her son in early March. She had enough money saved up for rent and counted on her partner’s income to cover food, formula and diapers during her maternity leave. A week later, the city started to shut down. Her partner, who works in maintenance, was furloughed and has yet to receive unemployment benefits.
“At the time I brought my son home, I thought I had what was a lot of diapers, because it was boxes and boxes,” she said. But in three weeks, she went through 150 disposables. Harris, who is not eligible for public assistance, said the local diaper bank has become a lifeline for her family.
In San Antonio, the Texas Diaper Bank overhauled its program to distribute more diapers and essentials at a time to minimize contact and help families stay healthy during the coronavirus pandemic, according to executive director Jorge Medina.
“We have seen an increase of over 100% in families enrolling for direct assistance with diapers,” Medina said. “Many of these are new families who had never received assistance. Others are families who received assistance on and off, but due to job loss, they have fallen deeper into poverty and are coming for help.”
Families enrolled in the program receive 150 diapers per child and wipes every three months. Seniors receive six months of incontinence supplies and women 120 feminine pads.
“If you look at what’s happening across the country, so many parents are in a position where they can’t provide for their child and never expected to be in that situation. The numbers are just overwhelming,” Goldblum told USA TODAY. “As long as the unemployment numbers go in the direction that they’re going, people get laid off and businesses are closed, we expect the need to continue to increase.”
Having trouble finding or affording diapers? Here are some tips
•Check inventory online and in stores as frequently as possible. Find out when your store restocks.
•Check the National Diaper Bank Network for resources in your area, or call 211 in many states for help. Look for community groups organizing diaper giveaways.
•In a pinch, you can make diapers out of maxi pads, old T-shirts, dish towels and baby blankets. There’s even a “No Sew T-Shirt Cloth Diaper.” You can also try cloth diapers.
•If you don’t have wipes, try a spray bottle filled with water to clean babies during diaper changes. Dry babies with tissues, paper towels, old sheets or rags. You can also douse paper or cloth with baby shampoo to wipe bottoms.
•If your family has enough diapers, you can donate closed, unused boxes or money to diaper banks.